5. Getting your way is usually not as important as finding a way to work together.
Reading this truth, I keep thinking of the time my ex and I spent taking ballroom dance lessons, first in a class setting while we were living in Wales, then individually in California, with one of my close friends’ parents who happen to be instructors.
I am not what you’d call a natural leader – I lack the outer confidence, and the skills of an extrovert. But I do wholeheartedly believe, most of the time, that I know what I’m doing. (The flip side of this is that, when I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m miserable.) So naturally or no, when my ex and I were taking dance lessons, I would wind up leading. And because he was unsure of himself and his dancing ability, and because he had a tendency to cowtow to me in situations where he was unsure, he would either let me lead, or would tell me to stop leading, without really being able to step up and lead himself.
For all the things we had in common – sarcastic senses of humor, fluency in French, good singing voices, appreciation of academia and quietude – we were, by all accounts, horrible as dance partners.
Doug and I, on the other hand, started out with nothing in common except our place of employment and the city we grew up in. Doug is athletic, a great cook, and a natural leader. His abilities are all very physical, and he is a born charmer in large group settings. I am book-smart, a great writer, and a natural at empathizing. My abilities are all intellectual, and I thrive in smaller groups and one-on-one interactions.
We see the world and act in the world so very, very differently, that one could easily assume we butt heads all the time. But it isn’t true. We’ve almost always been able to balance each other out, to become interested in each other’s interests because we are interested in each other. He reads books because I read books; I ride bikes because he rides bikes. We don’t compete in these areas because each of us knows how unfair a competition it would be; instead, we encourage each other to help create a sort of grey area of shared interests, so that, say, while we are on a bike ride that might be a little too hard for me, we can ride side-by-side and discuss a book that might be a little too hard for him.
A coworker/mutual friend once told Doug that, with respect to his interests and activities, he “could do better” than me. I was a little insulted, but surprisingly, not all that insulted, because in a way, she was right. He could find someone – anyone, really – who is more like him; I could find someone more like me. But I wonder whether the same harmony would be there in these “upgraded” relationships. Somehow I doubt it.
6. A great marriage doesn’t mean no conflict; it simply means a couple keeps trying to get it right.
I feel like this goes back to what I was saying in the “relationships take work” section: in my first marriage, my husband and I had no desire to fold to the other’s opinion. He wanted me to be a docile housewife, who had no male friends and no single female friends; I wanted to embrace the side of me that had spent a few years acting in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, getting half-naked on stage and flirting with strangers every weekend. In the three years we were together, we never reached a compromise, because neither of us really felt like giving an inch.
Doug and I have conflicts that creep up in our day-to-day lives. Occasionally, he’ll say or do something childish, irresponsible, or offensive, and I’ll wonder how, at 25, he hasn’t outgrown this bullshit yet. Occasionally, I’ll be making fun of him in what I think is a playful way, and suddenly realize I’ve taken it a step too far, and have crashed into the wall of hurt and disbelief that I also occasionally run into with my mom. Our fundamental differences in nature and talents mean there are lines we can cross, sometimes too easily, with regards to how we view the world and how we treat each other. The best either of us can do is keep making notes of where those lines are, and promising to try to stay behind them in the future.
Which brings me to…
7. You’ll realize that you can only change yourself.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to come up with a description of our ideal partners, then have that person materialize in front of us?
Well, no, not really. Because at the time that we got together, my ex was my ideal partner: he respected me, he fawned over me, he told me I was beautiful. This was everything I could have possibly wanted after a few on-again-off-again college relationships. But it turned out not to be right. What I first saw as respect and fawning was actually my ex putting me up on a pedastal, as this perfect woman he’d created from the clay I was already made of. I woke up one day, years later, wondering how to get the hell down – but it wasn’t the version of me on Earth that he wanted.
Likewise, when I met Doug, he was perfect for me inasmuch as he was the polar opposite of my ex-husband. That is to say that his youth, his immaturity, his slightly malicious sense of humor, were exactly what I thought I wanted. But those aren’t necessarily things one wants over time.
Yet, for all my “Douglas!”es, all my attempts to reprimand him for an off-color joke in public, I know that I am never going to erase the part of his personality that acts this way. (It’s genetic, after all; he gets it straight from his dad and his favorite uncle.) What I can change is how I feel about this side of him. I can remind myself that his youth will keep me young, that his irresponsibility will show me how to relax in the face of stressors over which I have no control, that his bad jokes will… Well, they’ll get me to snap “Douglas!” at him, and possibly hit him lightly on the arm or the thigh, a reaction which somehow always seems to net us both a smile.
8. As you face your fears and insecurities, you will find out what you’re really made of.
This is the one that most affects me going forward. Because my first marriage failed for reasons I should have seen all along but didn’t, I am constantly looking for signs that my relationship with Doug is doomed as well. Not enough sex? It’s the beginning of the end. Arguing over who’s spending too much time doing what? We must be en route to a break-up. Enjoying the time I get to spend without him? Time to figure out how to tell my parents I’ve let them down again.
Of course, none of these signs really marks the end of my relationship, as I’ve spent the last two posts examining. But recognizing that this is my biggest fear – that the unknown elements of the future are my biggest fear, really, both within and outside of the context of my relationship – means I’m more likely to do what I’ve just done here. I’m more likely to look at all sides, to ask myself (and my partner) the crucial questions about what may or may not happen, and to try to determine whether my fears are grounded. And hopefully, should I ever discover something actually wrong, this pre-emptive tactic will give me plenty of time to get in there and rectify the situation before it’s too late.
For the time being though, every time I submit my relationship or my life to this kind of intense scrutiny, I come up with the following: “You know, I think it’s going to be okay.”
I know who I am, and I know what I’m capable of. I’ve spent the last
nine months 28.75 years working hard to figure all that out, learning to embrace the good and show some compassion for the not-so-good.
I don’t know about the snoring kid in the bed next to me, but I am, for better or for worse, as prepared for the next step as I likely ever will be.